November 20, 2018

Sexuality and religion: Topics for the public sphere?

Vanity Fair contributing editor Kevin Sessums conducted a fascinating interview with Kevin Spacey in advance of his role as disgraced (Jewish) lobbyist Jack Abramoff in “Casino Jack.” The real meat of the interview, however, has nothing to do with Abramoff, but the concept of tribalism, which Sessums uses as a lead in to try and get Spacey on the record about his sexuality. It has been rumored for years that Spacey is gay but the actor has never publicly outed himself. Sessums sort of inexplicitly asks him about this, and why he has never felt the need to beat the drums of gay pride. Spacey responds, inexplicitly, in intellectual and political terms, citing his belief that sexuality is not a topic for the public sphere. That’s private, Spacey argues.

It brought to mind a recent conversation I had with Werner Hanak-Lettner, curator for the Jewish Museum Vienna, who was in town last week researching an exhibition on the History of Hollywood that will launch in October 2011. I asked him how Hollywood Jews had managed to preserve dual identities, as Jews and Americans, at various points in history when they seemed to be in conflict. In the early days, Hollywood Jews wanted to dissociate themselves from religious Judaism which they felt was highly stigmatized, and of course, brought with it brutal consequences in Eastern Europe and Russia. His answer? That Hollywood Jews separated their Americanness from their Judaism by relegating their religious life to the private sphere:

“Go back to The Jazz Singer where it’s really a movie about an agreement of a whole generation that says, ‘[Religion is] a private thing. We don’t have to decide if we are observant and then have Judaism in all [parts of our] life. This was really a statement that religion is your private life.”

Here are the best bits from the Sessums-Spacey interview from The Daily Beast:

Sessums: OK, but at any point you want to go off-the-record let me know. Casino Jack has a tribal motif running through it. There is Abramoff’s taking advantage of the Native-American tribes and playing them off each other. There is the tribe of lobbyists in D.C., which is itself a tribal town. And there is his deep identification as a Jew that almost takes on tribal aspects in its religiosity. As I sat in the screening watching all these tribal narrative streams blend together I began to feel compelled to put this to you. We gay men have always proudly claimed you as a member of our tribe, and yet you don’t proudly claim us back. Why?

Spacey: Look, I might have lived in England for the last several years but I’m still an American citizen and I have not given up my right to privacy.

Sessums: But that’s where we differ. I don’t think being gay is a private matter. Heterosexuals don’t consider their heterosexuality itself a private matter. I’m not asking you what goes on behind a locked door anymore than I would ask a heterosexual. I’m not asking if you’re a top or bottom. That’s none of my business.

Spacey: Let’s enlarge the subject even more. I think what we have seen in terms of gay teenagers committing suicide because of bullying is anguishing. I think young people, if they are feeling like they are confused, need to know that there are people to talk to and that there are places they can go and not feel alone. But I feel that they have just as many rights as I do to not be bullied. And I don’t understand people who say, “Well, this is a terrible thing that is happening to this young person whose life is being exposed,” and then turn around and do it to another person. People have different reasons for the way they live their lives. You cannot put everyone’s reasons in the same box. It’s just a line I’ve never crossed and never will.

Sessums: I don’t see sexuality as a weapon. I see it as a gift. Look, I know that being an actor—and all the emotion and sexuality and longing that is projected onto you in a role by an audience—complicates the issue in that you have to take into account their required complicity in the very essence of your art. No performance is complete until their belief is a part of it. But I stopped being an actor after I left Juilliard because I couldn’t live a lie to enable myself to pretend. That was too much of a double whammy.

Spacey: I don’t live a lie. You have to understand that people who choose not to discuss their personal lives are not living a lie. That is a presumption that people jump to.

Sessums: There are lies of omission. But I have never heard that you are at all hypocritical in your daily life with your close friends and family. You’ve admitted you’re a political animal so you have to understand the social significance of your being more open when discussing this. But you’ve been great to keep this all on the record. I appreciate that. That speaks to your innate integrity.

Spacey: Look, at the end of the day people have to respect people’s differences. I am different than some people would like me to be. I just don’t buy into that the personal can be political. I just think that’s horseshit. No one’s personal life is in the public interest. It’s gossip, bottom line. End of story. Now some people feed that. They’ll go to the trendy restaurants where all the photographers are and then bitch about being famous. But if you don’t want to feed that and you want your life to be based around what your work is then it ends there. Your saying that you are gay and that is how you walk about in the world and it has nothing to do with your true private life is a good distinction for you to draw. But it’s not such a good distinction for other people. Personally, I don’t really think that distinction exits.

Read the rest at The Daily Beast